Microrobots for nanomanipulation
Microrobots from the company Imina Technologies are revolutionizing the manipulation of tiny components/elements under the microscope. The EPFL spin-off is now attacking the American market, and has received one of the four Vittoz awards – worth 30,000 Swiss francs – given by the Science Park (PSE).
The mobile microrobots developed by Imina Technologies, a spin-off from the Laboratory of Robotics Systems, are preparing to invade the American market. They enable the replacement of the fixed manipulation systems traditionally used to grab, touch or direct samples observed under a microscope. No bigger than poker dice, they can perform very precise tasks up to 10 times faster than at present. The user moves them around an object using a joystick or a computer keyboard.
The robots move by micro-jumps (several thousand per second), invisible to the naked eye, that are generated by piezo-electric motors. Some materials, such as the ceramics used in this case, are deformed mechanically when an electric current is applied to them. The variation in the frequency of the electric signal being used enables these small devices to move at a given speed. This kind of functioning has the advantage of allowing the user to work on samples several millimeters in size, while guaranteeing a movement resolution below 50 nanometers.
An electric probe, optical fiber, pliers or other miniature tools are fitted at the end of the tiny robot’s arm, rendering it capable, for example, of separating out a carbon nanotube (more than 10,000 times finer than the diameter of a hair) and measuring its electrical conductivity.
Imina Technologies, founded in March 2009, has already installed several systems for companies in Europe, in leading-edge laboratories of institutes of research in nanotechnology. New solutions are being developed in the field of biotechnology, with the goal of manipulating cells and characterising their functioning.
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Rapid and flexible
On sale since the beginning of 2010, the finished product is packaged in the form of a ready-to-use kit. “We provide a turnkey platform for micro- and nanomanipulation that includes the robots and tools adapted to the application”, explains one of the founders. “Installation in an optical or electron microscope only takes the user a few minutes, and provides him or her with enormous flexibility in terms of the breadth of possible experiments.
Thanks to the Vittoz Award (30,000 Swiss francs), the start-up will be taking part in two important trade fairs focused on nanotechnology, and will be presenting its product to big American laboratories. The other winners of the awards given by the Science Park at Ecublens (PSE) – in cooperation with the economic promotion of the Vaud canton – are Kandou, Attolight et Nviso. The goal of these awards is to support young companies (less than four years old) being hosted by the PSE to attack markets outside Europe by giving them the possibility to travel to meet partners, clients or future employees, and enabling them to quickly develop efficient networks in North America. During the whole process, the start-ups are supported by their PSE coach and a consultant based in the United States.
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